Just the simple joining of these two terms is enough to summon up hopefulness in a field some see in a negative light. In his book, The Pursuit of Perfect, author Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. narrows in on this topic with a look at the barriers constructed by perfectionism in setting, achieving and enjoying personal goals. His antidote to perfectionism is “optimalism,” a term whose life was no doubt conceived from early researchers’ description of the concept of positive psychology as the “scientific study of optimal human functioning.” The three sections of the book – theory of perfectionism, application of ideas, and meditations – succeed in providing the background and tools with which the reader can begin a personal assessment.
Visiting the self-improvement section of a bookstore or the psychology classification area of any local library you will find a multitude of books from which to choose. Many claim to offer a new way of helping you change your life for the better by adjusting your attitude, behavior or habits. A 2009 article on Forbes.com refers to the self-help industry as “freakishly resilient,” with Americans shelling out $11 billion in 2008 on books, CDs, seminars, and the like. That demand for these books seems to be self-sustaining. It is no wonder that, at the time the article was written, the latest forecast was for it to grow another 6.2 percent through 2012. Ben-Shahar finds himself in very good company with such notable contributors to the field as Dale Carnegie, Anthony Robbins, Steven Covey, and David D. Burns.
As put forth by the author, there are “three distinct yet interrelated aspects of perfectionism: rejection of failure, rejection of painful emotions, and rejection of success.” Rejection of failure can be seen in the workplace “where innovation is sacrificed on the altar of the tried-and-true;” rejection of painful emotions is the equivalent of taking “emotional shortcuts;” and rejection of success leads us to be “doomed to disappointment.” Prefaced with thought-provoking quotes from individuals ranging from Shakespeare to Golda Meier to Soren Kierkegaard, the stage is then set for what readers can expect to discover in each chapter. Filled with helpful ideas in the areas of education, work, and love, the applications section is where you begin to find yourself reflecting on your own life. Throughout, questions or ideas for consideration are presented in what the author refers to as a “Time In.” Exercises at the end of each chapter provide fuel for readers to delve just a bit deeper into the experiences that have made them who they are or to recognize behaviors and beliefs that can be changed or enhanced for more rewarding life experiences.
People who are generally happy in all areas of their lives but perhaps just need direction in a few areas will find themselves among those to whom the author bestows his observations and gentle guidance. Through the recounting of his own struggles with perfectionism – first as a professional squash player, then as a student, and even in his present-day endeavors – readers will most likely experience moments when they discover their kindred spirit-ness with the author. His countless references to books and studies by others, while necessary to expand on and provide correlations to his own theories, proved somewhat distracting. The positive light in some of these distractions is that they provided an introduction to others whose work I was unfamiliar with and am now eager to learn more about.
On a more somber note, when writing accounts of two separate cases of suicide – one the author attributed to success, the other to failure – I was troubled, particularly in the high-profile case, that he seemed to hold perfectionist tendencies accountable for the decision by these two individuals to end their lives. While an unspoken goal to be perfect could very well have been a factor, it does not seem fair – and moreso it was just in poor taste – to make an assumption that was the case when it can never be proven right or wrong.
Overall, I came away with a personal observation that Perfectionists and Optimalists do share one thing in common: They both start down the same path on the same journey of achieving the goals they have set for themselves. What sets them apart is how they take in the scenery on the way there. One finds the positive in every setback (Optimalist) or the negative in every failure (Perfectionist). One sees only in black and white (Perfectionist) while the other sees the gray area as something to be studied more closely (Optimalist).
Those who enjoy reading self-help books will enjoy the workbook aspect of The Pursuit of Perfect and the easy reading style in which it is written. It will also hit the mark with everyone who wants to get with the program as given in the book’s subtitle, How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.
The Pursuit of Perfect
By Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D.
McGraw-Hill: March 2009
Hardcover, 246 pages